Unraveling the Pet-Food Mystery

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Hannah Mentz / Zefa / Corbis

The fear and outrage surrounding the death of beloved Fidos and Fifis around the country from contaminated pet food isn't going away. Another recall was announced on Thursday, as officials added dog biscuits made by Sunshine Mills, a company based in Red Bay, Alabama, to the list of retracted products, because of the possibility it may have used contaminated wheat gluten. And Menu Foods Ltd. — which announced its first recall of 60 million dog and cat food products packaged under various brand names three weeks ago — extended the recall date to foods made between Nov. 8 and Mar. 6.

Since the scare began, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has confirmed 16 pet deaths, although anecdotal evidence suggests thousands more may have died because of the poisonous food. The FDA points to the inexplicable appearance of melamine, an industrial binding chemical used in plastic furniture, cookware, and in fertilizers overseas, as the likely cause. Lab tests found it in wheat gluten, a gravy thickener used in wet pet food. (Wheat gluten is also used in human food such as baked goods and meat substitutes, but there is no indication the tainted wheat gluten has made it into human food.) "The association between melamine in the kidneys and urine of cats that died and melamine in the food they consumed is undeniable," says the FDA on its website. "Melamine is an ingredient that should not be in pet food at any level."

Still, the FDA says it cannot be sure melamine is the culprit. Here are the chief unanswered questions in the continuing pet-food mystery.

What Caused the Deaths?

Richard Goldstein, associate professor of medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who is part of a Cornell team investigating the cause of death, says he would not normally expect melamine to kill a pet. Research on melamine's effects on animals is very limited: only a few dated studies have been done on dogs and just one on cats, which showed limited poisonous effects and no kidney damage. And melamine has a very low level of toxicity to rodents. "It looks like it [the melamine] is causing direct cell death in the kidneys and this is not something we would have expected to happen," says Goldstein. "I don't think it's pure melamine. Maybe there is some kind of reaction with the metabolism of melamine that would cause this."

A growing number of complaints about sick and dying animals who ate only dry food, which typically does not contain wheat gluten, is another reason some authorities question whether melamine is the real culprit. Bruce Friedrich, Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has urged the FDA to test for excessive levels of vitamin D; last year a manufacturing error led to too much of the vitamin in Royal Canin pet food, causing kidney failure and death in several animals. But Goldstein says excessive vitamin D is unlikely, since blood tests would show high calcium levels, which haven't been found. Says an FDA spokesman: "Our analysis of the premix indicates that vitamin levels were appropriate." Other theories floated to explain the bizarre deaths are aminopterin, or rat poison, which would cause the kind of kidney damage seen. An Albany lab found the substance in two pet food samples of canned foods, but the FDA has ruled these out because no other lab has been able to confirm the results.

Are Pet Food Standards Tough Enough?

The FDA, which is in charge of regulating pet food, claims the standards are as stringent as those for human food. But some authorities disagree and the FDA website admits they have limited enforcement resources. "The FDA is an agency under siege with no money and resources," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, who is writing a book on pet food. "They're not going to make pet food the priority when they have so much to do to make human food safe." That's disturbing news to animal lovers, since many furry pals are part of the family. The FDA requires that pet food must be pure, wholesome, sanitary and safe to eat — but the agency has no obligation to approve the food before it goes to market. "The FDA doesn't inspect the plants or the food, but leaves that up to AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials], which is a body that has no regulating power," says Friedrich of PETA. "So it really becomes self-policing."

Critics of the pet food industry point to two factors that may contribute to unsafe food: the centralization of the process for making food and the use of unsanitary material from rendering plants. The recall brought to light that the wheat gluten, which was eventually recalled, came from a single Chinese company but ended up in over 100 brands of pet food. ChemNutra Inc., based in Las Vegas, bought 873 tons of gluten from the Chinese company, farmed it out to three pet food makers and one distributor that services the industry. A highly centralized process may be cheap, but "at that size and scale if something goes wrong it goes wrong big time," says Nestle.

Rendering plants, which boil down dead animal carcasses from slaughterhouses into fats and proteins, sell cheap material that often ends up in pet food. The "meat" in your cat's kibbles could be any kind: there's no law against even using rendered material from cats and dogs in pet food. Plants can mix in anything from road kill to supermarket deli meats, and investigations by KMOV-TV in St. Louis and the Los Angeles Times have suggested that pets killed in animal shelters just might make it into the slop. The Pet Food Institute, whose members create most of the dog and cat food sold in the U.S., told the Times that pets are not allowed in their products. But the FDA has admitted to finding "very, very low levels" of sodium pentobarbital — the chemical used to euthanize animals — in some brands of dog food. Wayne Pacelle, President of the Humane Society of the U.S. said the allegations need more scrutiny. "The pet food industry is not the most transparent of industries and it has been really difficult for the public to obtain information," he says.

What Should You Feed Fido?

Besides staying away from recalled products, pet owners might want to consider using natural food from smaller companies. "I would suggest feeding pets organic instead of commercial dog food from big companies who are focused on filling food at the cheapest price," says Friedrich from PETA. Some pet lovers are bypassing store food altogether, serving up home-cooked meals — everything from bone-shaped biscuits to homemade hamburgers. Sales of cookbooks for cats and dogs have increased dramatically, according Nielsen BookScan. But Goldstein of Cornell warns against cooking for your pet. "I would hate for people to stop using commercial pet food, because it's the healthiest diet in the long term for dogs and cats who need multiple vitamins at the proper ratios."